LESSONS MY COMANCHE TAUGHT ME
TRAINING DOES WORK!
by Todd La Neve
I had flown my mother-in-law and niece home to Steubenville, OH, along with my four year old daughter, Lindsey, who is developing into a flying nut. It's a 67 NM trip from my home base at Clarksburg, WV, (KCKB) that takes me to the outer edge of the Pittsburgh (KPIT) class B airspace. The flight culminated with my first actual IFR approach without another pilot in the plane (GPS 32 at 2G2 - Jefferson County/Steubenville). The visibility was about two and a half in haze. I had the airport by about 2500 MSL, well above the 1940 MSL MDA, and slipped onto the runway for a beautiful landing. There was a lot of pressure as my mother-in-law had NEVER been in any type of plane before and she was pretty nervous. I had talked to her the entire flight, explaining everything I was doing and why, and it really seemed to help calm her down. The unfortunate thing was that the visibility en route seemed like next to nothing in haze and a few low clouds most of the way. Even the ground was hard to make out at times. Nonetheless, she absolutely loved it and told my wife in a phone call later that evening that she can't wait to fly again, especially when visibility conditions allow her to see more. I was pretty pleased, particularly as she had said she'd fly with me anytime, anywhere!
The event occurred as Lindsey and I were heading home. We had a normal run up, takeoff roll, and initial climb out. I had switched from Unicom to PIT Approach and was cleared to 4000, direct Clarksburg in accordance with my IFR flight plan. About 30 seconds later, I heard a change in sound and felt the plane react in a manner last experienced during single engine training. The unthinkable had happened as I saw myself going through the textbook engine out procedures. I determined that I had lost power in the left engine, though it did not quit. I was still making 2450 RPM as I had set the prop levers for the climb, but the sound dropped away just like in training. I was in night IMC in an area with virtually no ground lights, in a climb, indicated airspeed of about 115, with my oldest baby sitting next to me. Needless to say, I was SCARED! Nonetheless, I remembered that my jobs, in order of priority, were to Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate. So I flew the plane first.
During the initial retarding of the left throttle lever to verify the power loss, the engine sputtered back to full power for a moment, swinging the plane back to straight flight from its canted position induced by the asymmetric thrust condition. I immediately stopped retarding the lever and flew as the engine surged for a moment then dropped back off in power. I restabilized then retarded the lever again with no repeat power gain. Near the bottom of the range of motion for the lever, I heard another sound reduction and felt a little more crab angle come into play. I am by no means mechanically inclined, but I reasoned that this must have been indicating the engine was still making some power, particularly since the RPMs were still high. I advanced the lever again, hoping that if there was another episode of the engine regaining power that I would have the throttle open at that moment. Since the event I have talked with some other Comanche pilots who advise that not shutting the engine down was probably the best move I could have made since it was maintaining safe RPMs.
The most impressive thing for me about the experience was the effect of instinct instilled from training. By the time I had registered the conscious thought that I had to conduct engine-out procedures, I had already done so and was on my way through the restart sequence, the plane being already stabilized on heading and altitude. My mind finally caught up to my body as I realized all the levers and switches were in their proper positions and the engine wasn't going to regain full power, so I immediately contacted PIT Approach, let them know my situation and that I wanted to land at the nearest airport, and they vectored me to Wheeling, WV (KHLG) just five miles out at my 12 o'clock. The Lord was smiling on me as HLG was the only VFR area on my entire route of flight, an isolated pocket with visibility about 6 in haze. I like to jokingly refer to my plane as a PA30/everything due to the almost two pilot collection of advanced avionics systems. But, under the pressure of the situation, I wasn't even able to think of how I was going to find Wheeling's tower frequency on my own (never mind that I actually know the frequency, by heart, to be 118.1 - it just wasn't coming to me). The controller fed me the frequency, issued me a cruise clearance to do whatever I needed, advised me that I was already cleared to land at Wheeling, and vectored me for a visual on runway 21 on which he said lights were being turned up to full intensity so I could spot them more easily. Shortly thereafter I got a visual on the runway and switched over to tower. The controller confirmed that I was cleared to land and he asked if I needed the equipment to roll. Sensing that the situation was really pretty well in hand, except for my nerves, I said it wasn't going to be necessary.
As I slid down the descent path provided by the PAPI lights, I began to relax as I had no doubt by then that we were going to make the runway. The calm professionalism of the controllers had helped me focus on what I had to do to get safely to the airport and I will be forever thankful for their assistance. The benefit of a twin also came home to me as I realized that a single would have likely left me short of the airport and short of options. The thought momentarily crossed my mind that I could just continue to Clarksburg, but I immediately realized the purpose and safety benefit of twin redundancy is to use the backup systems to make a safe landing as soon as is practicable, not to push the flight to its originally intended conclusion. I was also able to reflect on Lindsey's actions. As I was initially struggling to recognize the situation and get the plane stabilized, she had put her hands up on the co-pilot's yoke and said, "Daddy, I can help you steer." At the time I had been in too much of a state of shock to appreciate the gentleness and love in her actions and told her that I needed her to not touch the controls. She leaned back in her seat and put her bare feet up on the yoke, toes curled around the ram's horns and repeated herself more insistently. Again, I told her that daddy really needed her to just sit back and help by not doing anything until he needed her to, and this time she relented. I was touched by her ability to do just what was needed and not complicate the situation any more than it was already. She was an absolute trooper and it was, for me, a defining moment in how I will look at her for the rest of my life. To give her a sense of accomplishment, I let her "steer" the plane to parking with the yoke while giving her directions on where to go. She told everyone about how she parked the plane later that night, although she did allow that it was scary for her as well.
The amazing thing is that my stress and adrenaline levels were so high that I just did everything by memory, using the concept of a "flow" as taught by my multi-engine instructor. I don't think I could have used a checklist because of my intense focus on just flying the plane. I ran through my BBC GUMPS check (Brakes, Boost (aux fuel pumps), Cowl flaps, Gas, Undercarriage, Mixtures, Props, Switches (as in landing lights, etc.)) several times then focused on the PAPI lights to make a slightly high approach till I was assured of landing on the runway. The airport was pretty quiet and the sole lineman helped out by providing a phone and checking around to see if there were any mechanics still on the field. It was nearly 9 p.m. and all the business were closed, though. I called my wife, told her about the unplanned stop and we made arrangements for my in-laws to pick us up and meet my wife halfway. The plane was tied down for the night and we sat outside to wait. When the tower closed at 10 p.m., the controller came down and we shared our thoughts on the whole experience. He advised that the PIT controller had been on the land line with him all the way to touchdown to confirm that the situation ended alright. Again, the teamwork and dedication really impressed me. I feel as though I formed a bond with the tower controller, Arnold Hay, based on his calm voice keeping me focused on arriving safely and we connected at a rewarding human level. I'll never fly over Wheeling again that I don't say hi when I hear his voice on the radio.
By the time my wife got us home, it was nearly 1 a.m. and she dropped me at the airport to pick up my Jeep. I ran into the FBO's director of maintenance and one of the mechanics just hanging out in the shop so we started talking about the flight. They took it upon themselves to drive the two hours back to Wheeling right then and there to investigate. The culprit turned out to be a broken alternate air box door which had come off and starved the engine of air. I've read about this problem and discussed it with some owners. While the plane was going through its recent renovation project, I had even gone to the length of sending the shop a few links and articles on the topic so they could check it. I was assured they did so and that the boxes were perfect. I since learned that they weren't looking at the right components when they did the check, thus emphasizing the need to find or develop a mechanic who knows the breed and is already familiar with the various Achilles heels in our planes. The really scary thing is that both doors were affected by corrosion and the right side wasn't too far from reaching its breaking point.
Once past Wheeling, there is virtually nothing but rolling mountain ridges and valleys for the next 55 miles or so to Clarksburg. Had it happened any later, I could have continued flying on one solid engine, but if the other door had let go, we almost certainly would have had no options but to land in an area that has almost no suitable landing sites. Had Wheeling not been visual, I don't know if I would have had the presence of mind to pull out the right approach plate and conduct an instrument approach. Of course, the only way to know is if I actually had to do it. Given that I had successfully handled the situation dealt to me, I guess I like to think that I would have risen to the task had it been necessary, particularly given the need to protect my little passenger. But I also know that my final analysis is that there were too many things that worked out just right for us to not believe we were helped by divine intervention.
Since that night, I have replayed the event in my mind a hundred times and realize that I did pretty well. This recounting probably makes it sound fairly dramatic, but on reflection I realize the overall occurrence was pretty much a nonevent. I had a problem with one engine, so I flew the other to an uneventful and smooth landing. The end result was the product of effective training and knowing just how to deal with a situation that we experience over and over during obtaining the rating and during subsequent practice. However, with just three hundred some odd hours under my belt, it was my first time to ever experience a real mechanical difficulty in flight. The fact that it was at night, in solid IMC, and in the company of my child amplified what would probably otherwise be a relatively low stress scenario to the point of really scaring me initially. What I like best about the situation is that I was tested and I feel that I rose to meet the challenge. I have always wondered how I would respond if or when the test arose, always hoping it would not. Now, in my mind, the question is answered - I know that I will do what it takes to try and get the job done.
Todd La Neve, 36, resides in Clarksburg, West Virginia. He and his brother, Steve, 43, jointly own N599R, a 1966 Twin Comanche, which is based at KCKB. Todd started flying in May 2000 and currently holds a private pilot license with ASEL, AMEL, and instrument ratings. When not practicing law, he is either flying, thinking about flying, bumming around the airport watching flying, or spending time with his family trying to get them hooked on flying. So far, his four-year old daughter, Lindsey, pictured here, is his biggest convert. He's an optimist though and believes there is hope for the others.